A friend and regular interlocutor, reacting to a comment I made about a week ago, suggesting that the Trudeau cabinet is still too large, challenged me to look at the “ideal” cabinet. Now, it is certainly no secret that I think the “best” government Canada ever had, in modern times, say during the past century, was a Liberal one, led by Louis St Laurent. It was firmly grounded in liberal political philosophy that was shared, and broadly accepted, by most Canadians; the St Laurent cabinet was determined to govern for the people, for each person, not just to govern the people; it was economically bold but, at the same time, fiscally prudent; it believed, firmly, in a principled foreign policy and a strong enough military to give it the muscle it would need, from time to time; it advanced increasingly progressive social policies, step-by-step, but always in moderation; it was about as competent and as honest as almost any government was ever going to be … bearing in mind that governments are composed of men and women much like us.
This was the St Laurent cabinet:
There is some doubt about the date of this picture; one Government of Canada source says 1948 and another says 1953; the few familiar faces around the table, Douglas Abbott, Brooke Claxton, Brigadier Milton Gregg VC, CD Howe and Lester B Pearson all served throughout that entire period.* What is not in doubt is that the cabinet was much smaller than what we see today: fewer than 20 members. Today’s cabinet has over 35 members.
The problems of large cabinets are grounded in two realities: more and more complex issues, especially social issues, and more choices. Louis St Laurent had between 245 and 265 MPs in the whole House of Commons and he governed with between 118 and 191 Liberal MPs on the government side. Justin Trudeau has a bigger problem: any modern majority government has 170+ members and Canadians are much better informed (or at least aware) of what government might do for (and to) them. He, like every prime minister before him, responds to the challenge by giving every group a voice. The outcome is a larger and larger cabinet. It’s not Justin Trudeau’s fault, it wasn’t Pierre Trudeau’s fault, either.
The correct answer, in my opinion, is a two tier cabinet: senior and junior ministers or an “inner” and “full” cabinet.
This, in Canada, has only ever happened in wartime; that’s Mackenzie King’s war cabinet on the right. (Standing, from Left to Right: Angus L MacDonald – Minister of National Defence (Navy); J. E. Michaud – Minister of Transport; C. D. Howe – Minister of Munitions and Supply; Louis S. St. Laurent – Minister of Justice and Solicitor General of Canada. Seated, from Left to Right: Major C. G. Power – Minister of National Defence (Air Force); T. A. Crerar – Minister of Mines and Resources; The Right Honourable W. L. Mackenzie King – Prime Minister, President of the Privy Council and Secretary of State for External Affairs; Colonel J. L. Ralston – Minister of National Defence; J. L. Isley – Minister of Finance.) By some accounts King’s war cabinet was medium sized: Churchill’s had 16 members, while President Roosevelt seems to have had an “inner cabinet” of only six, himself included.
The purpose of a two tier cabinet is to:
- Allow the prime minister to use a sensible ‘span of control’ to lead a small team that deals with all of the really key issues; and, sill
- Allow for a large cabinet that represents all regions and interests.
There are some theorists who say that 10 is about the maximum number that any leader can really direct and manage (control) at one time; but Churchill’s 16 member war cabinet, himself plus 15, seems to offer a larger number. It seems to me that the key sectors of the government are:
- The Economy ~ which includes industry and commerce;
- Human resources ~ which includes e.g. labour and immigration;
- Natural resources;
- Foreign affairs;
- Law and order; and
- Government operations ~ which includes intergovernmental relations in a federal state, the security and intelligence and police services and procurement and supply.
That’s eight “sectors,” and some, like the Economy, might need to be represented by two or, more likely, three ministers. Let’s say that an inner cabinet of the PM plus 15 is acceptable. The other 25± ministers, including the newly created Rural Economic Development minister can be in the ‘junior’ cabinet. In my ideal government each junior minister, perhaps titled as a Secretary of State, would report to one of the 10 to 15 senior ministers in the inner cabinet. Those junior minister would still get offices, staffs, limousines and plenty of real responsibility, but they would have only limited access to the real centre of power at the cabinet table.
Of course we have had committees of cabinet since Confederation: the most notable, and formal, is The Honourable, The Treasury Board, it is the only formal committee of cabinet, and it harks back 500 years to the days when William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was the Lord Treasurer of England and, de faco, the prime minister ~ next time you’re in London go to 10 Downing Street and look at the brass plate on the door. It doesn’t say ‘Prime Minister‘ because 10 Downing Street is, in fact, the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, and that’s what the plaque says. (As an aside, Chequers, a country house, is the official residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.) Our traditions of controlling the sovereign’s power by controlling the treasury go back past even Simon de Montfort and are found, in fact, in Saxon Britain.* We still sometimes call the government benches in the House of Commons the Treasury benches.
But we also have informal committees and one is usually for Priorities and Planning, although, right now, it seems to be called the Cabinet Committee on Agenda, Results and Communications, reflecting, I think, this prime minister’s team’s view on what matters most. Many people see this committee as the de facto inner cabinet.
In August of 2018 the members of the Cabinet Committee on Agenda, Results and Communications were:
- Chair/Président: The Rt. Hon./Le très hon. Justin P. J. Trudeau;
- Vice-Chair/Vice-président: The Hon./L’hon. Dominic LeBlanc;
- The Hon./L’hon. Navdeep Singh Bains,
- The Hon./L’hon. Bardish Chagger,
- The Hon./L’hon. Jean-Yves Duclos,
- The Hon./L’hon. Chrystia Freeland,
- The Hon./L’hon. Ralph Goodale,
- The Hon./L’hon. Catherine McKenna,
- The Hon./L’hon. William Francis Morneau,
- The Hon./L’hon. Carla Qualtrough,
- The Hon./L’hon. Pablo Rodriguez, and
- The Hon./L’hon. Amarjeet Sohi.
The President of the Treasury Board, Jane Philpott, and the Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau, are ex-officio members of every cabinet committee on which they are not, already, named members.
That’s a 13 person committee, probably about right as a trusted circle that represents both key constituencies and key policy areas for this government.
In my opinion the Treasury Board should be the official inner cabinet. It’s members should be:
- Chair: The President of the Treasury Board;
- Vice-Chair: The Prime Minister
- Minister of Finance;
- Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce;
- Minister of Foreign Affairs;
- Minister of Justice;
- Solicitor General (Public Safety and Security);
- Minister of Human Resources & Immigration;
- Minister of Public Services and Procurement;
- Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and First Nations Affairs;
- Minister if Transport;
- Minister of Natural Resources (including Energy and Fisheries and Oceans); and
- Minister of National Defence.
That’s, once again, a 13 member committee ~ sort of biblical, isn’t it?
So, the answer to my friend’s question is: there is no ideal size for a cabinet; it can be as large as political expediency demands, and that, to be sure, is why cabinets have grown so much since the 1950s; but when it gets above about 20 or 25 it needs to be divided into two (or even more) tiers. In practice we already have two tier cabinets; it is time to acknowledge the simple and obvious fact that the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Rural Economic Development are not equals: one is senior and the other is very junior. That’s a fact that I’m sure is not lost on Bernadette Jordan, or anyone else.
* Our (Canadian) use of the Treasury Board is not the only old tradition to which we, unlike the British, hold on. For example the British equivalent of our Clerk of the Privy Council is, in Britain and in most Commonwealth countries, called the Cabinet Secretary. Both titles go back to Tudor times: William Cecil, Lord Burghley was, first Secretary to the Council and then Lord Treasurer; his son Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, succeeded him as Elizabeth I’s right hand man, but he, for reasons that may have included just annoying his arch rival and the Queen’s favourite ‘boy toy,’ the Earl of Essex, styled himself as Clerk. Now in the 16th and into the early 17th century many officials were clerics, monks and priests, and that is, in fact, the origin of the term clerk. Essex is said to have often referred to Cecil as “that damned clerk” and some historians say that is why he chose to use that title … he is said to have especially enjoyed it after Essex was beheaded for treason.